It was clear that I was not the first person to ask Jon Fukui for an interview. After being introduced, he agreed to our sit-down with the aplomb of an A-list celebrity being asked for a selfie. As I unpacked my recorder and notebook, Fukui eyed me in silence, his fingers clasped loosely in his lap. But when he finally fielded my first question, Fukui’s skepticism faded and the young artist revealed his affable undertones.
Fukui is known for his monsters. Some might even say they are his obsession. His creatures, however, are not the slapstick variety you might find in a Pixar movie, but the sixty-story terrors you would see going toe-to-toe with Godzilla in some soon-to-be-leveled metropolis. This is no coincidence, considering that Fukui finds most of his inspiration in Japanese cartoons and TV shows.
“I started with monsters, because that’s what I like. I enjoy watching monster movies, [but] I’m more of a TV fanatic. I like to create my own creatures sometimes, [but mostly] do something from TV.”
Specifically, Fukui cited Ultra Man as a major creative influence. When I admitted that I had never heard of the show, Fukui was incredulous but polite, informing me that it was a Japanese science fiction super hero show from the 70s. Thankfully, I was able to save face when moments later I correctly identified the seal on Fukui’s jacket as belonging to the Survey Corps from the popular manga and anime series Attack on Titan.
When it comes to deciding which monsters to sculpt, Fukui’s criteria are simple: it cannot be ugly or boring. The monsters Fukui creates have to excite him and have a substantial “cool” factor. Something not all shows can deliver on.
“If it was like a character from Power Rangers or something like that, I would mostly [not make it]. Not anymore.”
Despite Fukui’s passion for sculpting, he did not always find pleasure in art. Fukui vividly remembers the frustration that resulted from a self-portrait he drew in kindergarten.
“We had to draw ourselves on a big paper. I didn’t know what it was supposed to look like, so I drew myself. But I did something wrong. Everybody was drawing, putting necks and eyes and a smile and a nose on the stuff. But mine, on the other hand, mine was just black eyes, round eyes. I colored my face pink or peach, and just a smiley face, because I wanted to make it cheerful. But the teacher was telling me, ‘that’s not how it’s supposed to look. You’re supposed to draw bigger and supposed to put neck and nose and stuff,’ and it really pissed me off, since it was just a drawing of my face. I wanted to do it my own way, instead of what it was ‘supposed’ to look like.”
These negative art experiences kept Fukui from pursuing training, preferring instead to draw on his own terms. It was not until a friend recommended NIAD Art Center in Richmond, California, to his mother that Fukui began exploring art instruction again. But as Fukui explained, it took him a while to warm up to the center.
Despite his initial misgivings, Fukui stuck with it, crediting his assimilation to talking with his fellow artists and allowing the teachers to help him. Looking back on his first days at NIAD, Fukui laughs at himself.
“I just picked up whatever and how much the amounts and stuff, because at that time I didn’t even know how much [clay] I should add.”
Now a NIAD veteran, Fukui’s biggest challenge is mastering the medium he has grown so fond of.
“[With] ceramic sculptures I have to make it really hollow and [think about] how much I should cut. It takes a long, long time [and the clay] ends up drying so fast. If it turns out messed up, it messes up my mind and I have to cool myself down.”
If a piece is especially frustrating, Fukui will scrap it or turn to painting as a way to capture his vision. When asked about his attrition rate, Fukui shrugged his shoulders and responded, “Depends on the day.” But despite the occasional anguish, crafting monsters remains Fukui’s favorite pastime.
“When I’m making art, it makes me [feel] like I’m creating something alive. Like something new is about to be born.”
Fukui’s first progeny were large in scale, oftentimes too cumbersome to finish, as was the case with a reptilian warrior, who ended up with only a head, chest, and feet. Fukui credits the instructors at NIAD with refining his sculpting technique so that he can work on a more manageable scale.
“I used to use, like bigger stuff, because that was the only thing in my mind. I didn’t know how to work in small sizes. Right now, [I am] starting with smaller sizes, then I add more clay on top. It’s better than starting from big clay then over carving. It finishes faster [too].”
All the support, however, does not come without drawbacks. Fukui finds himself in constant conflict when it comes to incorporating the suggestions and critiques of his mentors and fellow artists. At the end of the day, he wants to make the best sculpture possible, but it is difficult for Fukui if that means compromising his original vision.
“Sometimes I want both, but I have to choose only one, so it’s really hard for me. I’m not good at what you call ‘decisions’.”
When it comes to offering his own feedback, Fukui prefers to keep his opinions to himself. Recently, he sat next to a woman carving a hippopotamus with questionable proportions, but refrained from correcting her, because it was her art, not his. Fukui believes that each artist has a unique vision that should never be compromised, especially when it comes to artists with disabilities.
“The way they draw is different than the others. The shape is different. Some [are] a little bit bigger, some [are] a little bit smaller. It’s not just drawing, but with sculptures [too]. It really surprises me. I never even thought of what they are able to do. Everyone has their own way of doing their art.”
Curators at San Francisco’s de Young Museum took notice of Fukui’s way of art when they included his work in Art Slam 2015, which is the museum’s annual side exhibition of works by artists with disabilities. According to NIAD Gallery Director Tim Buckwalter, Fukui’s work is also a hot commodity among collectors. In this year’s solo show at NIAD, Fukui sold every piece he had on display.
Fukui has a seizure disorder, which made going to school a difficult and expensive ordeal. He remembers the frustration of having his parents called out of work every time he had an episode in class. Eventually, his family moved to the Bay Area, where they found programs, like NIAD that could better accommodate his condition. When asked what he liked most about NIAD, Fukui’s response perfectly summarized the camaraderie shared by the center’s artists.
“Talking to people, and trying to understand.”